Zipporah and the Eucharist

[Today’s guest post is from Julie Walsh, who has some wonderfully wise thoughts on the Lord’s Supper and the ministry of women in the body of Christ. Julie and her husband live in the Washington DC area, are sometimes empty-nesters of their five children and two grandchildren, and she has a Masters in Ministry from Nashotah House Theological Seminary.]

Tim has generously invited me to express my thoughts here about his post “Zipporah, the woman who mediated with God for her husband,” considering his idea of Zipporah’s priestly act for her husband Moses. In his post Tim noted Jesus’ priestly work for us as interceding to God for us (Hebrews 7:23-25) and importantly emphasizes:

One thing to remember about Zipporah is that she saved Moses before Israel had any priest. Yet still she carried out a priestly duty in offering blood to intercede for Moses with God; after all, atonement for sin requires an offering of blood. This was one of the first ordinances God gave the Israelite priesthood.

Last year I recognized that the story of Zipporah may also be behind—and enlighten—our understanding of Paul’s thinking concerning the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians. But to explain this I’ll have to first elaborate on a few ways I think about the apostle Paul.

First, here is how Paul refers to himself and his life before Jesus revealed Himself to him (Philippians 3:4-6, all references NIV unless stated):

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

So Paul most likely had to do some serious re-thinking when he realized that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah because Jesus was not what Paul, as Saul the Pharisee, expected the Jewish Messiah to look like! So Paul met with the disciples in Jerusalem (Acts 9:26-28) and then spent three years in Arabia and Damascus (Galatians 1: 18-19). Saul the Pharisee’s righteousness based on the Mosaic Law included a God who met with His male priests in a temple (Herod’s) that even had a separate court for the women. But this Jesus—who declared Himself alive to Saul—taught some things intensifying some of the Old Testament commandments but also new and different commandments. As Ben Witherington III teaches, Jesus set up new commandments and a new covenant:

At no point in the Mosaic covenant are we told that God’s people should be committed to no oaths, no divorce, no violence, no food laws, no circumcisions, or even the love of enemies. These new things reflect a new covenant, not merely a renewal of the old one, and new covenants have new commandments, however much they may also adopt old ones and make them part of the new covenant. The Law of the Spirit of life, is not the same as the Law of sin and death merely renewed or redefined in Christ and the Spirit (see Romans 8.1ff). (From here)

And, as Carolyn Custis James shows in her book Malestrom (which I’ve reviewed here), Jesus also did not keep to what the Pharisees saw as the proper way for men to act towards women:

“(Jesus) was a different kind of man—a very different kind of man. At every turn he was at odds with prevailing Jewish standards. He was unmarried; he included women among the disciples who traveled with him; he touched lepers and the dead and allowed the touch of a menstruating woman; he kept company with criminals, traitors, and prostitutes; and he had an annoying tendency to violate Mosaic Law—at least in the minds of the Pharisees. Jesus didn’t go down easily in first-century Israel. In a word, Jesus was radical.” (173)

So after Paul’s re-thinking, you hear Paul, the apostle of Christ, talk differently about the Mosaic Law in his letter to the Galatians. Paul states that the Law was a tutor that we are not now under and that we are all one now in Christ:

“Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

And then right after this he states:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal 3: 23-29)

And when Paul looks for a model of this new covenant that Christians are now under, instead of this Mosaic Law (which he still calls good in Romans 7:12), he looks back to Abraham and his faith (Romans 4).

So, with this in mind, I’ll go into the way I think Paul views the Eucharistic meal/Communion in his first letter to the Corinthians in regards to Zipporah. In a passage talking about the need to get rid of sin Paul makes a reference back to the story of the exodus of the people of God from the land of Egypt and Jesus as the Passover lamb (1 Cor 5):

Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Then in a later passage in that same letter describing why some of the Corinthians are sick and have died (1 Cor 11) Paul says some familiar words for Christians–plus something that is often puzzling for scholars (23-32):

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.

Taking the cup is a sign of the oath of the Corinthians’ covenant with Jesus. Paul counsels them therefore to examine themselves before taking the bread and drinking the cup, and believes that some of them haven’t and so are sick or have died. But is this idea also in the story of the Exodus? This is where I believe Zipporah comes in.

After God has spoken to Moses about going back to Egypt to be God’s instrument to free God’s people from slavery, but before Moses meets with his brother Aaron, there is this weird passage that Tim speaks of in his post (Exodus 4: 21-26, NRSV)—

The Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Israel is My son, My firstborn. “So I said to you, ‘Let My son go that he may serve Me’; but you have refused to let him go. Behold, I will kill your son, your firstborn.” ’ ”

Now it came about at the lodging place on the way that the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and threw it at Moses’ feet, and she said, “You are indeed a bridegroom of blood to me.”

So He let him alone. At that time she said, “You are a bridegroom of blood”—because of the circumcision.

Scholars note that the “him” referred to in verse 24 is ambiguous—some think the Lord is trying to kill Moses and some think it is referring to his son, Gershom, the one Zipporah circumcises. Scholars also struggle with the “bridegroom of blood” comment, unsure of where this title originates from, some speculating that it may be from a wedding ceremony. There is also the possibility that Moses himself hadn’t been circumcised. Whatever is the case on these questions, it is Zipporah—a woman—that does the circumcision to keep the Lord from killing “him.” The circumcision of boys eight days old is a sign of the oath that a man takes to be in covenant with God, as God prescribes to Abraham (Genesis 17).

Connecting the dots

The Mosaic covenant required male priests but Paul calls the Mosaic covenant a tutor only needed until Christ came; and Paul refers us back to the Abrahamic covenant of faith instead. In the Eucharistic celebration, Paul sees Christ as the Passover Lamb that was sacrificed, and so we should properly keep the Feast, like God’s people kept the Passover celebration with unleavened bread, by keeping our hearts and lives clean from the wickedness that leavens.

And so going back before the enactment of the Mosaic covenant Paul perhaps sees that Zipporah acts in a priestly way—by performing the rite of circumcision and putting the blood on Moses—that seals the oath with God and that keeps God from trying to kill either Moses or Gershom. Since God chose her top perform this priestly function, likewise it is both men and women who can be the ones to lead the sacred Meal we call communion.


For more, see:

Ben Witherington’s post on why the early church changed to look more like an Old Testament institution: Five Factors Which Changed Church History.

Tim Peck’s post on ordained women in sacramental churches: Women Leadership in Sacramental Churches.

Scot McKnight’s post on the earliest celebration of the Eucharist in the Church: At the Center of Christian Worship.


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8 Responses to Zipporah and the Eucharist

  1. Jeannie says:

    So interesting, Julie — thank you for this analysis. I appreciate your and Tim’s thoughts in both posts on the issue of women’s roles and actions in Scripture.

  2. Carmen S. says:

    All The Women Of The Bible ( Dr. Herbert Lockyer)
    Zipporah The Woman Who Wrongly Opposed Her Husband
    Zipporah, as a Midian, did not share the spiritual values of her notable husband who found himself acting against the sacred tradition of Israel. This may be one reason why he named his second son Eliezer, meaning “The Lord of my father was my help.” To keep the peace, Moses compromised with his unbelieving wife and withheld circumcision, the sign of God’s covenant, from Eliezer. The Lord intervened, and as a sign of divine displeasure, Moses is stricken with a mortal disease. Both Zipporah and Moses become conscience-stricken over the profanation of God’s covenant, and Zipporah yields. Moses is too prostrate to take a knife and circumsize the child, so his wife severed the boy’s foreskin and, throwing it down before Moses said, “Surely a bloody husband art thou to me.”

    When Moses was restored to health relations in the home were not congenial, for he went on alone to Egypt, and Zipporah and the two sons went back to her house in Midian. When Moses became the mighty leader and law-giver of Israel, there was the episode when Jethro, his father-in-law came out to the wilderness to see Moses and brought with him Zipporah and the two sons. The union was devoid of any restraint for Moses graciously received them and neither disowned nor ignored his wife and sons. But after this visit during which Jethro gave his over-burdened son-in-law some very practical advice, nothing more is said of Zipporah. She disappears without comment from the history of the Jewish people in which her husband figured so prominently. Neither as the wife of her husband nor as the mother of her children did she leave behind her a legacy of spiritual riches.

    Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. The words are clearly a reproach, and the gist seems to be that Moses was a husband who cost her dear, causing the blood of her sons to be shed in order to keep up a national usage she regarded as barbarous.

    ( So Paul meet with the disciples in Jerusalem…Acts 9:26-28). Epistle to the Galatians: John Calvin: ” Immediately I conferred not.” To confer with flesh and blood, is to consult with flesh and blood. So far as the meaning of these words is concerned, his intention was absolutely to have nothing to do with any human counsels. The general expression, as will presently appear from the context, includes all men, and all the prudence or wisdom which they possess. He even makes a direct reference to the apostles, for the express purpose of exhibiting, in a stronger light, the immediate calling of God alone, and asking nothing more, he proceeded to discharge the duty of preaching the gospel. “Neither did I go down to Jerusalem.” What he had just written is now explained, and more fully stated. As if he had said, “I did not ask the authority of any man,” not even the apostles themselves.

    Under the New Covenant is indeed the priesthood of all believers…..Christians offer the spiritual sacrifice of praise to our God through our High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ. A male minister is not a priest in the New Covenant. “Paul perhaps sees”??? No, Paul does not see…..Zipporah did NOT act as a priest and God did not choose her to act as a priest.

    • Tim says:

      Lockyer wrote “To keep the peace, Moses compromised with his unbelieving wife and withheld circumcision”? That’s mere speculation unsupported by the Biblical text.

      As for Zipporah and priestly acts, I think she did indeed act as a mediator of sorts to save her husband from God’s wrath.

    • Julie Walsh says:

      Hi Carmen. I agree with you that Paul received his new understanding from the Lord. And yes, too, male ministers are not priests in the New Covenant. But I do believe that Paul and the other writers of the New Testament were shown by the Lord how the Old Testament scriptures and structures prepared the way for the New Covenant: there are hundreds of direct and indirect references to the Old Testament scriptures in the New Testament. And the Risen Jesus on the road to Emmaeus showed the two disciples where He was in the Old Testament : “Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.” (He was the Rock that gave them drink in the wilderness, for instance.) So I believe that the Lord showed Paul a new model for leadership in the Body of Christ from the Scriptures, which included women, since Paul praised women leaders in the church. And I think this is possibly indirectly alluded to in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. But I would caution you to only use Scripture to support your case that Moses withheld his son’s circumcision because of his wife. And nowhere does it say that God was trying to kill Moses or his son because of something Zipporah did. Thanks for your reply!!

  3. Don Johnson says:

    Jesus did not and indeed could not teach that a Jewish believer should be “committed to no oaths, no divorce, no violence, no food laws, or no circumcisions” as doing so would have violated Torah and thus shown to everyone that he was not to be accepted as a true teacher, per the Torah itself. This is why the Pharisees kept trying to show that Jesus or his disciples violated Torah, but they never ever did; this is one of the repeated themes in the gospels. It is true that he taught a believer to love their enemies. I am not even sure why this section by Witherington in included.

    The Communion where Jesus institutes the New Covenant was a part of the Jewish Passover celebration, as such it was a family-and-friends type of gathering and anyone could serve. It was not a priestly function in the Mosaic covenants.

    • Julie Walsh says:

      Hi Don. I believe Jesus did not violate Torah, but He did violate the Pharisees’ understanding of it. He corrected them too by showing that the Torah is to be understood hierarchically, that is, all of it “hangs” on love the Lord with all your…. and love your neighbor as yourself. I’ve included this here because egalitarians take different views on Torah. And the more liturgically minded denominations of the Church do often look to the Mosaic Covenant and its male priesthood as a model for churches. Thanks for the conversation and good thoughts.

      • Don Johnson says:

        Yes, and when you look at the details, Jesus often points out how it is the Pharisees that are violating Torah. This is what leads to me think the added section in John 8 on the woman caught in adultery is authentic, as it continues this pattern..

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